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A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. Offering bold new ways of conceiving the present, Lauren Berlant describes the cruel optimism that has prevailed since the 1980s, as the social-democratic promise of the postwar period in the United States and Europe has retracted. People have remained attached to unachievable fantasies of the good life-with its promises of upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and durable intimacy-despite evidence that liberal-capitalist societies can no longer be counted on to provide opportunities for individuals to make their lives "add up to something." Arguing that the historical present is perceived affectively before it is understood in any other way, Berlant traces affective and aesthetic responses to the dramas of adjustment that unfold amid talk of precarity, contingency, and crisis. She suggests that our stretched-out present is characterized by new modes of temporality, and she explains why trauma theory-with its focus on reactions to the exceptional event that shatters the ordinary-is not useful for understanding the ways that people adjust over time, once crisis itself has become ordinary. Cruel Optimism is a remarkable affective history of the present.
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"Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant's brilliant new book, lays bare the price of our habitual ways of thinking about subjectivity, temporality, affect, attachment, and political investment. Exploring the condition of precarity that mocks the good life (or at least the better life) that hard work and good behavior are supposed to make possible within liberal democracy, Berlant's bold analyses of the impasse of the present and her unflinching determination to follow a thought to its necessary end make clear why this is a crucial, indeed a necessary, book at this moment-and also why it will inform our critical discourse for years to come."-Lee Edelman, author of No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive "Lauren Berlant elegantly weaves together readings of contemporary art, literature, and film to reveal how our persistent aspirations for the good life are continually thwarted. Reading this book is an exciting theoretical experience but it also has a very practical, immediate, everyday quality. Berlant gives us something like a how-to guide for living in the impasse, that is, the affective and political conditions of our present."-Michael Hardt, co-author of Commonwealth "This brilliant book will be much read and much cited. Lauren Berlant is widely regarded as one of the most important and original critics of contemporary cultural logics. Here she offers a genuinely new angle on familiar processes through her subtle yet forceful reading of cruel optimism, the psychic and structural dynamics that keep people proximate to objects, fantasies, and worlds that seem to diminish them."-Sara Ahmed, author of The Promise of Happiness "Lauren Berlant is not shitting on you or your dream. OK, yes, her latest book is called Cruel Optimism. . . . . Yes, the University of Chicago professor will break down everything you hold dear: food, love, politics, family, virtuous New Year's resolutions. And yes, within a few pages, there's that creeping sensation that, whatever makes you tick, it's got you on the fast track to ruin and disappointment. . . . Nevertheless . . . Cruel Optimism is less brutal analysis than a dark, lush still-life of American fantasies and our Quixotic lunges toward them. An affective portrait of the 99%." -- Caitlin Hu * Bitch * "This is Berlant at her most revolutionarily queer, questioning what would happen if we stopped thinking of ourselves in terms of identity categories, and instead reorganized our sense of self around the specific objects and ideas to which we are attached and the affects that they produce in us." -- Chase Dimock * Lambda Literary Review * "Cruel Optimism is a must read for any scholar interested in exploring the affective dimensions of precarity. . . . Cruel Optimism does precisely what Berlant's work always does - it changes the conversation in such a way that it makes you wonder why we weren't talking about these things all along." -- Anna E. Ward * New Formations * "If you are looking for some new language to use to describe the current crisis of hope, read Cruel Optimism. . . . It is a wild, deeply witty examination of our attachments to food, love, politics, family, and pop culture." -- Kate Clinton * Progressive *
Lauren Berlant is George M. Pullman Professor of English at the University of Chicago. She is the author of The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, both also published by Duke University Press, as well as The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life. She the editor of the books Intimacy; Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion; and (with Lisa Duggan) Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and National Interest.
Acknowledgments vii Introduction. Affect in the Present 1 1. Cruel Optimism 23 2. Intuitionists: History and the Affective Event 51 3. Slow Death (Obesity, Sovereignty, Lateral Agency) 95 4. Two Girls, Fat and Thin 121 5. Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal: Post-Fordist Affect in La Promese and Rosetta 161 6. After the Good Life, an Impasse: Time Out, Human Resources, and the Precrious Present 191 7. On the Desire for the Political 223 Note on the Cover Image: If Body: Riva and Zora in Middle Age 265 Notes 269 Bibliography 303 Index 327